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The image of Islam in the German media

More and more media reports convey a negative image of Islam and of Muslims. This does not refer to the tabloid media alone. A study by the University of Erfurt in 2007 stated that, even in the case of programmes about Islam on ARD and ZDF, over 80 percent of them have a negative focus by portraying, for instance, problems of integration, human rights violations or international conflicts at the same time. This combination shows Islam in a bad light.
"At the same time verbal stereotypes have decreased greatly. Generalisations such as 'Islam is by nature against progress' have become rarer," opines Kai Hafez, co-author of the study. But the problem was the narrow choice of subjects, as clearly seen in the imagery used by the media. The same five or six themes were usually shown in connection with Islam, such as veiled women, the Kaaba or self-flagellating Iranian Schiites. "It's rather like always illustrating reports about the Europeans with pictures of the bullfighting in Pamplona," reckons Hafez.

Capturing the contradictions of everyday life

"The public perception is that peaceful Islam has become inauthentic," remarks Heiner Bielefeld from the "Deutsches Institut für Menschenrechte" [German Institute for Human Rights]. Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, Islam had been associated with terrorism in particular. As a countermeasure it was necessary, "to take full note of normality", to portray the everyday life of Muslims as it is: in no way through rose-tinted glasses, but marked by problems and contradictions.
But why can't the Muslims manage to do this themselves? Should they not be the ones to publicly refute existing stereotypes of "Islam"? "The Islamic communities lack spokespersons," according to the analysis of Martin Spiewak of "Zeit", people who are used to social interaction in Germany, who are fluent in German as a mother tongue and, above all, who know how to deal with the public: "And with a sense of irony, not quick to flare up whenever there is criticism. For a long time there's been no more than a handful in this mould." Nevertheless, a new elite such as this would grow up and with it the potential to give Muslims a different face.

Media producers from migrant backgrounds offer a further opportunity. They could make a vital contribution to conveying a different image of Islam in the opinion of the writer and journalist Hilal Sezgin: "A reporter or picture editor of Turkish origin does not necessarily have to be well versed in Islam." They fell into the trap of stereotyping far less easily when it was a question of choosing pictures on Islamic themes. At the same time, it was in no way preferable for media producers of Turkish origin to act essentially as "Islam experts". In Sezgin's experience many of them are unintentionally labelled in this way, even if they have no interest at all in Islam. Sezgin therefore demands: "They should have more journalists of Turkish origin reporting on non-Islamic issues, on the Federal Republic for instance. This would effectively show that not all Turks are Muslims, and that not all Turks only talk about Islam."

Academic debate to counteract harem stereotypes

Foreign reports that depict life in Islamic countries also shape the image of Islam in the German media. This presents Islam academics with a particular opportunity to act in a consultative capacity in the opinion of Sonja Hegasy of the "Zentrum Moderner Orient" [Centre for Modern Oriental Studies] in Berlin. She herself is regularly consulted by journalists, and latterly by a production company that was filming a piece on the Moroccan royal family commissioned by ZDF. Hegasy advised the team of writers to "describe the political changes - not just the usual clichés about life in the harem.
Academic input in order to counteract stereotypes - a requirement here would be for academics to go beyond pure research work by taking upon themselves a "socio-political role". This should in no way mean that academics make public relations their sole focus. Local research trips of many years duration would in any case be essential for meaningful research - "in other words not simply research on the internet and (the Arab television channel) al-Jazeera"."

First signs of balanced reporting

Some hopeful first signs are nevertheless emerging in the mass media. The 80 percent or so of me-dia reports under public law that paint a negative picture of Islam can at least be turned on its head: it means that just 20 percent of these reports capture Islam in an impartial fashion. Rather than going for the bad headlines, which are still regarded by many media producers as guaranteed crowdpullers, they are dedicated to the social, religious and cultural aspects of Islam. Kai Hafez is convinced that, "It is a good start, which indicates the presence of journalistic potential.”

Thilo Guschas, 14.01.2009

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